Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Pomegranate: from Meir to Soloveichik


On March 5, 2017 our Talmud Circle finally reached the long anticipated pomegranate on page 247 of our Steinsaltz, Berakhot 36a. And, of course, the pomegranate graces the front cover. Why is it there? “The fruit is hidden,” suggested David Berlutti in class. “You read this book and it gets revealed.”

The pomegranate is just past its season, typically September through February in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been cultivated in Persia and throughout the Mediterranean basin and India for thousands of years. It appears on coins uncovered from temple times.

God spoke of it. “And you shall make holy garments” for my priests, God instructed (Ex. 28:2). “Make the robe of the ephod all of blue,” he said. “On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate round about on the skirt of the robe.” Ex. 28:31-33. God was insistent about pomegranates.

Solomon listened. He had the pillars of his temple engraved with pomegranates (1 Kings 7:18).  “Behold, you are beautiful,” he cooed. “Your eyes are doves behind your veil . . . your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate” (Song of Solomon 4:1-3). They say he designed his crown after the pomegranate’s crown.

The Uncircumcised Fruit

The pomegranate fruit is a berry with its inedible outer husk protecting hundreds of luscious ruby red juicy seeds. The number of seeds can vary from 200 to 1400, but by Talmudic tradition there are 613 seeds: one seed for each mitzvah.

The pomegranate is mysterious, holy like the womb, like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It is orla: it generally takes three years to produce edible fruit. Orla is also that which conceals something else. It is uncircumcised fruit. We must remove its husk like the foreskin from a penis.

In Kabbala, they say that, like the seeds of the pomegranate, God’s presence in the world is often concealed from our eyes and we have to find it. Jacob wakes from his dream and says “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) It’s a huge move, says Peretz, from idol worship—which is evident, on the surface—to the idea “I was dreaming and my head was on the ground, and God was here and I did not know it” (until I perceived it). To discover that which is hidden involves a mystical journey. And you can get to it, like opening a pomegranate.

Why do we say 100 blessing a day? The commandment is not hidden on a mountain, or on the seas, or in the stars; where is it that this comes from? It’s in us. That’s the revolutionary move of Deuteronomy is what I heard Peretz say. It’s all in us, and we have to find it: in our mouths, like pomegranate seeds.  Torah runs with this idea, says Peretz. It’s what Heschel meant when he said “When I pray I talk to God, when I study, God talks back to me!” When God says "Build me a place among you” he really means “in” you; in us.  The journey produces the change. If we say Brakhot it will have an effect.

Orla is a fruit which needs three years for the interior to ripen. It is that which conceals something else. Lemons are orla, but the pomegranate is the ultimate orla. It is message laden; metaphoric. That’s why it’s on the cover of Talmud. That’s why it’s all over Jewish art. 613 seeds and full of mitzvoth. The seed of life. The tree of knowledge—the Hebrew word used in Genesis for the apple in the tree of knowledge of good and evil is ta-poo-ah, which has been rendered as apple in the Greek and Christian traditions, but which could also be rendred as pomegranate. The pomegranate, of course, is one of the seven species.
 
The Seven Species
Aside 1: When next you visit the West Bank to check on the occupation, and a young IDF soldier asks you “What’s in your backpack?” don’t look in your phrase-book for the translation of pomegranate (“rimon”) because “rimon” also means “grenade.”

Aside 2: Pomegranates are hard to open. You need a big knife and newspapers to contain the mess. “Yes, it’s the messiest fruit on earth,” confirmed David Berlutti. You need expertise to open it and get at those gorgeous, juicy, ruby red seeds. It’s a metaphor for hard study, says Peretz.  And it’s erotic because it looks like a womb; a well impregnated womb.

Aside 3:  An image of the womb in Kabbala: it’s the kindest place you ever were at: cared for unconditionally and you never had to say thank you. 

The pomegranate: open it and there is life. 

The Pomegranate and learning from neo-Kantian Liberalism

“How could Rabbi Meir learn Torah from the (filthy) mouth of Acher (Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya)?” So wondered the rabbis in Talmud Chagigah 15b. How indeed? Acher, born sometime before 70 CE, flourishing late in the first century and early second century, was a notorious Hellenist. This was frowned upon. “The lips of a priest ought to preserve godly knowledge,” say Resh Lakish and others. After all, a priest is the messenger of God, and how can we trust this messenger if he spends his days thinking about new fangled Greek ideas, much less speaking of them? 

But Rava came to Rabbi Meir’s defense. “I descended to a chestnut garden, to see the buds of the wadis,” says a beautiful line from the Song of Songs. “We all know that wadis are muddy, full of excrement . . . yet there grow the beautiful buds,” suggests Rava. “And there, do we not also find chestnuts, and dates, and even pomegranates? And we think of the chestnut: just because it is smeared with mud and excrement, what is inside does not become disgusting.”

“Yes, and we can eat the date, yet discard the pit,” adds Rav Dimi.

Rabbah bar Sheila went to find Elijah the prophet, that whimsical figure who sits suspended half-way between heaven and earth. “What’s God up to?” asks bar Sheila.

“God is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis,” says Elijah, “but he is not including anything from the mouth of Rabbi Meir (because he fraternized with Elisha ben Abuya the Hellenizer!).”

But bar Sheila’s not buying it: not from Elijah and not from God! “Why on earth would God not repeat anything from the mouth of Rabbi Meir,” says Sheila. “Rabbi Meir is a good guy!”

“Because he learned from the (filthy) mouth of Acher,” says Elijah.

“Tell God when he is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis, He should include Rabbi Meir,” says Sheila. “Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate; he ate its inside and disposed of its rind!”

You gotta love the spirit and playfulness of this passage (paraphrased) from Talmud Chagigah 15b that Peretz brought to class . . . .

Aside 4: Rabbi Meir is very prominent in the Talmud. He was the teacher of Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna in Zippori. He was married to Bruriah, one of the few women scholars mentioned in Talmud. Meir was a student of two polar figures: Akiva and Elisha Ben Abuya.  Abuya pursued rationalism; Akiva Talmud. Milton Steinberg’s novel, “As a Driven Leaf” (2000) is built on the stories of Akiva and Elisha Ben Abuya.

Aside 5:  This Rabbi Meir story is a typical Talmudic homily: the rabbis of the Talmud know all these characters. It begins with a rhetorical question:  How could Meir learn Torah from Acher (Elisha ben Abuya)? Malachi 2:7 refers to the priestly benediction: in synagogue, when a Cohanim is brought forward, he covers his face, takes off his shoes—he is the messenger of God.  He has only restricted speech.  He can’t say “other things.”  He should only be quoting Torah, not spouting Plato. 

Aside 6.  Talmudic writing: Talmud plays with what’s before and what’s after. This story presents a good example of this. The rabbis and God and Elijah are having a conversation out of time. And Talmud uses Greek forms: parables (stories), parabolic plots (twist endings, surprise), hyperbolic statements (overstatement), rhetorical questions, homilies (lessons inserted). At some level they are all Hellenists. Every once in a while you have archival elements that bring back hidden memories. Sometimes a collection of stuff broken down. 

And, of course, the rabbis of the Talmud are a product of their time. Although they might (grudgingly) have indulged Rabbi Meir consorting with the rationalist, philosophizing Elisha ben Abuya, they did not see much value in his Greek philosophy. They were willing to overlook it: they did not see value in the pit of the date, the hull of a chestnut, or the shell of the pomegranate. Two millennia later, many are ready to appreciate and learn from the entire pomegranate, not just the seeds.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) is one of the most prominent 20th century Jewish thinkers. He was a leading Talmud scholar, but he was also steeped in Western science, philosophy, and politics. He was a paragon and teacher in the Modern Orthodox movement and an expert on neo-Kantian philosophy.


The essence of Modern Orthodoxy is faithful (highly knowledgeable, and a bit snobbish?) adherence to Halakha combined with a study and appreciation of secular thought.

Born in modern day Belarus, Soloveitchik descended from a 200 year succession of prominent Eastern European rabbis. His primary education was in a traditional Talmud Torah school, in preparation for Yeshiva studies, supplemented by a private tutor. He graduated from a liberal arts Gymnasium in Dubno—located 200 miles west of Kiev in Ukraine. In 1924 he entered the Free Polish University in Warsaw, and in 1926 he moved on to the Friederich Wilhelm University in Berlin. There he studied neo-Kantian thought and political science, but also kept up a rigorous course of Talmud study.

Like Rabbi Meir, Soloveitchik chose a strong woman and a peer for a mate. In 1931 they had a royal wedding: his wife, Tonya Lewit (1904-1967), had a PhD from Jena University and a pedigree going straight to Rashi!

Through his studies, Soloveitchik sought to bridge the gap between traditional Eastern European Orthodox Jewish scholarship and the forces of modernity in the Western world. In 1932, he and Tonya emigrated to the United States where Soloveitchik made his life in Jewish studies.  For 45 years he headed the Rabbi Israel Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York.

During his career at Yeshiva University, Soloveitchik sought to combine the best of Talmudic scholarship with the best of secular scholarship in Western civilization. He published prolifically and was influential on an entire generation of Jewish leaders of the 20th century. His work stresses the normative and intellectual importance of keeping Jewish law (halakhah), and the entire halakhic tradition, central to Judaism.

What would Elijah say? When God is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis, does He include Joseph Soloveitchik?


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